Hector Verdugo had no faith in this woman standing before him, promising she could change his life with words. He was 32, a gang member and ex-convict, and he had seen do-gooders like her before. They always left. Life never got better.
Luis Alfredo Jacinto, known as Freddy, had doubts, too. He was only 10 and toying with joining a tagging crew -- the first step toward gang life. The woman wanted him to write sentences beginning with "I am. . . " Freddy wrote: "I am bad because of the influence around me." "I am thinking about changing my life." But he added: "I am always going to be my homies crime partner."
The woman was Leslie Schwartz, 44, a published novelist. She taught a class of 12, put together by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang program.
Boyle figured this composition class, launched with help from the nonprofit writing organization PEN USA, might keep young people out of trouble. Schwartz encouraged her students to write about what they knew. Over nine months, the narratives constructed by Hector and Freddy -- both in class and in their personal lives -- would consume her.
Hector Verdugo grew up in East Los Angeles' Ramona Gardens housing project. His father died of a heroin overdose a week before he was born. His mother, also an addict, read him Bible stories, then disappeared for days. He and his twin brother bounced between their mother and foster care.
Hector was 14 when he joined a gang. Not long after, he was sent to juvenile hall for stealing a car. At 16, dealers offered Hector $3,000 to sell drugs -- and over time he did well, spending his earnings on low-rider cars, motorcycles and trips to Hawaii. At 18, he was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to prison for two years.
By 24, he had decided to give up the criminal life. Slowly, he sold everything to pay rent, support his three children from a former girlfriend and bail friends and family members out of jail.
He started a hauling company. When it failed, he took jobs shoveling dirt and breaking concrete. Last fall, he applied for financial aid and enrolled full time at East Los Angeles College. But there was one thing he needed for school that he could not afford: a computer.
"You gotta go to Father G," a friend told him. He had known Father Gregory Boyle since his days in juvenile hall, when the Jesuit priest offered Catholic services to the inmates. Over the years, Hector dropped by to say hello. After some reluctance, he asked the priest for help. Boyle gave him the computer -- and a job paying $8 an hour.
A few weeks later, Hector agreed to enroll in the writing class.
Freddy Jacinto was a little guy who walked with a swagger. He lived down the street from Homeboy Industries, and Boyle paid his tuition at nearby St. Mary's Catholic School -- as long as he kept his grades up. He talked of becoming a lawyer.
But he was an angry handful. His mother, Sandra Jacinto, 28, was raising Freddy and his 9-year-old half-brother alone.
Freddy was 4 when a man he thought was his father visited. Freddy got ready to leave on a ride with the man when his mother stopped him. "You're not his kid," she said. Freddy then watched his brother ride off instead.
Every two weeks, Freddy's brother left with the man. Freddy's mother told him that she was his father, too. "I love you for both. Just do good."
Freddy's mother worked the late shift at a cookie factory, arriving home at 2:30 a.m. One night she returned and Freddy was missing. He had been tagging. When she picked him up at the police station, an officer told her: "Your son is going to be here in jail soon, or he's going to die."
She took Freddy home and threw out all of his baggy clothes, because the police said they made him look like a gangster. Freddy threatened: "I'm gonna go to the gang. I'm gonna go!"
Hector listened, unconvinced.
Inside a makeshift classroom at Homeboy Industries in Boyle Heights, Leslie Schwartz said that she was a recovering alcoholic, seven years sober.
She started drinking when she was 11. "I felt like I had a whole world of hurt inside of me when I was growing up." When the hurt got the best of her, she said, she lied and drank and used drugs and hurt the people she loved. It was writing, she said, that saved her. Writing might save them too.
"There are people all over the world in prison because of the things they've said and the things they've written. Poetry has put people in prison. Why is that? Because words are way more powerful than a gun or a bomb or a knife will ever be."
Schwartz told Hector and the others to write a word or sentence on a note card. She collected them and read one: "Ignorant minds." Write about it for five minutes, she said. "Go."
Hector wrote three sentences: "They say we only use a small percentage of our minds. I want to use my whole mind. If God provided me with this brain and I only use a portion of it, then why am I short-changing Him of my brilliance?"